PACKING LITTLE PUNCH? This one’s a long
way from a KO.
Was it Muhammad Ali who advocated a lot of dancing before landing a punch? There, I’ve let on that what I know about boxing would fit in a very small box. But Tunney/Shakespeare in Six Rounds, a one-man play about Bard-loving 1926-’27 world heavyweight champ Gene Tunney that’s receiving its world premiere at Merrimack Repertory Theatre (through December 9), practically dances its wooden feet off before packing a wallop. It finally makes an impact in a second act that benefits from fight footage and something specific to say. But before intermission, a gruff Tunney, ostensibly addressing students at Yale, admits that, though the Bard changed his life, he has little to add to Shakespearean scholarship. He then goes on to prove it, circling the subject while swinging away at personal biography, broad life advice, and quote-laden paeans to his favorite author.
Written by novice playwright David E. Lane and capably performed by Broadway and Shakespeare vet Jack Wetherall (evidently without aid of a director), the play takes the form of a series of lectures delivered by the retired boxer at Yale. Never mind that the egghead pugilist gave only one talk at Yale, in 1928 (on Troilus and Cressida). Lane has chosen to expand the concept and move it ahead a few decades, to the 1950s (though he does not omit reference to the golf pal who got Tunney the gig, long-time Yale professor William Lyon Phelps, who died in 1943). Explains Lane, waving his poetic license in a program interview, “What a 20-something-year-old athlete has to say about Shakespeare is not nearly as interesting as what a middle-aged man has to say.”
Lane’s gritty-patrician Tunney is long retired to a Connecticut spread and stints on the boards of various corporations, and he is not without an air of self-congratulation. He exudes passion for the Bard, but he adds to the self-help tips he’s gleaned from Shakespeare a few jabs at jaded politicians, special interests, and misinformed, oversimplifying journalists. At times his fluent access to the canon serves him well: when the class is invaded by sports scribes, he piles on them all the contempt of Isabella condemning Angelo in Measure for Measure: “But man, proud man,/Dressed in a little brief authority,/Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,/His glassy essence, like an angry ape/ Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven/As makes the angels weep.” Take that.
After offering broad generalizations based on Romeo and Juliet (if Romeo’s passion had been tempered by judgment, he’d have lived longer) and Hamlet’s advice to the Players (we are all play actors), the lit-loving prizefighter takes a more personal tack. Having dressed down from a three-piece suit to a natty blue blazer, he returns to the classroom (indicated by several empty desks) in act two to offer life lessons gleaned from the ring as well as from the Bard. He first shows footage of the 1919 fight that won his predecessor, Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight crown and later screens the “famous long count” of his 1927 rematch with Dempsey, which some felt he should not have won. He also shares an ostensible revelation that hit him harder than Dempsey: like Coriolanus, he was valiant but haughty and “unlovable,” and that caused the public to remain cool to him as a champ. Wetherall’s Tunney is tough and a little smug, delivering Shakespeare’s verse with an air of intense yet conversational understanding. And he is quite touching in his brusque Coriolanus-induced epiphany.
But Tunney/Shakespeare is clearly a work in progress. At the preview I attended, I counted five rounds, and the match needs to get shorter still. It also needs a director to augment the few tricks of lighting (by John Ambrosone) that are the piece’s only theatrical embellishments. The brainy boxer might be an interesting subject; certainly Shakespeare is. But this bout, flat for its first hour, is a long way from a KO.